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Is Your Hair Thinning From Stress? Treatment Options Explained

Stress is your body’s natural response to demanding situations, from a gruelling schedule at work to a traumatic event or major change in your life.

While everyone feels stressed from time to time, severe stress can take a serious toll on both your physical and mental health. 

Over long periods of time, stress can increase your risk of developing certain health problems, including ones that can severely affect your quality of life. 

Although stress doesn’t cause male pattern baldness, high levels of stress might cause you to temporarily lose hair. When you’re stressed, you may notice diffuse thinning across your scalp or clumps of hair loss from certain parts of your head. 

Hair loss from stress can be a serious annoyance, but it’s usually treatable. Below, we’ve gone into more detail about how stress can cause hair thinning, as well as the methods you can use to treat both stress and stress-related hair loss. 

How Stress Causes Hair Loss

For men, the most common cause of hair loss is male pattern baldness — a type of pattern hair loss that’s caused by a combination of genetic and hormonal factors.

Male pattern baldness is something that either affects you or doesn’t. If you’re genetically prone to male pattern baldness, a hormone called dihydrotestosterone, or DHT, that’s produced by your body may cause your hair follicles to gradually weaken, resulting in permanent hair loss. 

Stress doesn’t cause male pattern baldness, nor does it have any real effects on hormones like DHT. However, it can disrupt your hair’s natural growth pattern in a variety of ways, resulting in several forms of temporary hair loss. 

Stress and Your Hair’s Growth Cycle

Just like your skin, nails and other types of tissue, your hair is constantly renewing itself through a multi-phase process referred to as the hair growth cycle.

Your hair’s growth cycle is made up of four phases. The first is known as the anagen phase. In this phase, your hair follicle produces a hair shaft. The shaft grows out from the follicle, creating the hair that’s found across your scalp.

Each hair spends two to six years in the anagen phase as it grows to its full length. Around 90 percent of the hairs on your scalp are in the anagen phase at any given time.

The second phase is known as the catagen phase. This is a transitory phase that sits between the anagen (growth) phase and the telogen (rest) phase. Only around one percent of your hairs are in the catagen phase.

The third phase is referred to as the telogen phase. During this phase, your hair stops growing and begins to rest at its full length.

The fourth phase of your hair’s growth cycle is the exogen phase. This is when your hair begins to fall out, with new hair replacing it. It’s common to lose about 100 hairs each day as new hairs grow to replace them.

Unlike male pattern baldness, stress won’t cause your hair follicles to permanently stop creating new hairs. Instead, most stress-related hair loss occurs when your hairs enter the telogen phase of the growth cycle prematurely, causing them to suddenly stop growing and shed. 

Types of Stress-Related Hair Thinning

Stress can potentially cause several different types of hair loss. We’ve listed the most common types of stress-related hair loss below, along with more information on how and why each one can develop.

Telogen Effluvium

Telogen effluvium is a form of temporary hair loss that’s related to shocking events or changes to the body. It can occur after surgery or major physical trauma, during periods of illness, or at times when you feel extremely stressed due to a specific event.

Although the exact prevalence of telogen effluvium isn’t known, it’s generally considered to be quite a common form of hair loss.

Hair loss from telogen effluvium usually begins approximately three months after a stressful or traumatic event. It’s often quite abrupt and can involve sudden, significant hair shedding that seemingly comes without any warning.

Telogen effluvium hair loss is usually diffuse, meaning you’ll notice thinning across your entire scalp. This can make it relatively easy to differentiate from male pattern baldness and other forms of hair loss. 

Trichotillomania

Trichotillomania, or hair-pulling disorder, is a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder in which a person repeatedly pulls out their own hair, causing thinning and hair loss.

Although trichotillomania isn’t directly caused by stress, many people with trichotillomania find that stressful situations are a common trigger for their hair-pulling behavior. Others note that pulling their hair helps them to relax when they’re feeling stressed.

How to Treat Hair Thinning From Stress

Treating hair thinning from stress is often a multi-step process. Rather than rushing straight to hair loss medications, it’s important to identify the specific type of hair loss you have and how your feelings of stress may contribute to it.

If you’ve noticed thinning and think it could be caused by high levels of stress, it’s important to contact your healthcare provider. 

Although telogen effluvium can usually be diagnosed via a physical examination and examination of your family’s hair history, sometimes healthcare professionals will administer what’s called a punch biopsy. 

Your healthcare provider will take a small sample of skin and hair from your scalp using a biopsy punch — a sharp tool that’s rotated through the top, middle and fat layers of your skin.

Using this sample, experts can view your hair follicles to check how many are in the catagen or telogen phases of the growth cycle. Most of the time, you’ll be diagnosed with telogen effluvium if more than 25 percent of your hairs are in this phase at any given time.

In some cases, such as when you have significant hair thinning, it’s often possible to diagnose telogen effluvium through a physical examination.

Tips and Techniques to Reduce Stress

If your telogen effluvium is linked to stress or anxiety, you may need to make some changes to your habits and lifestyle to reduce stress. Try to:

  • Identify and reduce your stress triggers. It’s important to identify the causes of your stress and take steps to reduce their severity.

    This may mean solving problems in your personal life, using time-management skills to stay on top of a demanding workload, spending more time on yourself or simply asking for help from your family and friends.

  • Use stress reduction exercises. Simple stress management techniques such as deep breathing, meditation and relaxation can often go a long way towards helping you relax and avoid feeling stressed or anxious.

    Our guide to the benefits of meditating goes into more detail on how meditation can help you to relax, improve your psychological balance and escape distractions.

  • Keep active. Exercise is a powerful stress reliever. In addition to reducing stress, study data shows that regular exercise helps to improve alertness and concentration, prevent fatigue and enhance cognitive function.

  • If you smoke, try to quit. Although the nicotine in cigarettes and other tobacco products may feel like a stress reliever, it actually increases stress by affecting your breathing and blood flow.

    In addition to its negative effects on stress, research shows that smoking may be linked to hair loss in men. As such, it’s worth making a serious effort to either quit or cut back on your tobacco usage.

  • Only consume alcohol and caffeine in moderation. Both of these can worsen stress over the long term, making it important to moderate your consumption if you’re prone to severe stress.

  • Be prepared to say “no.” If you come into a situation that you think might worsen your stress, be prepared to take steps to avoid it. Sometimes, this might mean saying “no” to people’s requests.

  • Set goals that you can achieve. Try to set realistic goals that you can achieve without pushing yourself too hard. Remember that it’s often better to focus on a few achievable goals than several challenging objectives at once.

  • Consider counseling or therapy. If you have severe, persistent stress that doesn’t get better over time, consider counseling or therapy. Talking to a mental health professional can often help you to overcome issues such as stress and anxiety.

If you have an anxiety disorder, your healthcare provider may prescribe medication to help you control your symptoms. Our guide to anti-anxiety medications goes into more detail on common treatments for anxiety. 

Treatments for Improving Hair Growth

Most of the time, any hair that you lose from stress-induced telogen effluvium will grow back on its own after the causative event is identified and treated. 

Because stress-related hair loss isn’t related to genetics or hormones, prescription medications like finasteride won’t stop thinning or speed up hair regrowth. Likewise, surgical procedures like hair transplantation aren’t effective for treating this type of hair loss.

Although research on its effects as a treatment for telogen effluvium is limited, minoxidil may be effective for promoting hair regrowth after stress-related hair thinning.

It’s important to understand that hair growth after telogen effluvium isn’t always immediate. You may need to wait six months for your hair to begin growing back and longer to see a significant amount of regrowth.

In Conclusion

Severe, persistent stress can have numerous negative effects on your health, including causing your hair to thin due to telogen effluvium.

If you have stress-related hair loss, it’s important to treat the stress before you focus on growing back your hair. Use the techniques listed above and work with your healthcare provider to focus on managing your stress levels at work, home and in your daily life.

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This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.